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Andrew Osmond tackles Orwellian homeland security

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Psycho-Pass; the first half of the name should warn you. This is a blend of SF and horror by the studio which brought you Ghost in the Shell, now splicing cyberpunk, police procedural and splatter. There will be blood, and dismembered body parts, and if no-one’s actually eaten a human liver on the show yet, there’s still Psycho-Pass 2 to come.

The show’s set in a Japan which has sacrificed freedom for security, where the state can look inside your head and judge you instantly. Police are able to scan a person’s brainwaves and read their ‘crime coefficient,’ their potential for committing criminal offences. If it’s too high, the person is arrested and imprisoned indefinitely; or if it’s too high, then they’re gorily executed on the spot. But instead of the totalitarian nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four, this is a perversely Disneyfied dystopia. Police wear smiley-faced character suits while asking civilians to move on from crime scenes, and most people seem actually content with the status quo.

But of course there are still criminals, who seem almost more violent and twisted because of the social conformity they live under – a fear which pervades modern society, and Japanese society in particular. But here’s the twist. The best cops in Psycho-Pass, called Enforcers, are those who can think like criminals, which of course means they’re criminals themselves (because thinking like criminals is a crime). Therefore, most of the police have the status of dangerous dogs, means to an end rather than citizens with rights.

They must be supervised by more high-minded people, the Inspectors, and the story starts when a new Inspector joins the team – a bright-eyed woman rookie called Akane, who looks young enough to be in school. She’s voiced in Japanese by the seemingly omnipresent Kana Hanazawa, known for playing kindly, girly support characters like Shiemi in Blue Exorcist and Mayuri (“Too-too-roo!”) in Steins;Gate. That said, Psycho-Pass’s director claimed the word ‘moe’ was banned in meetings about the series, and by the end of the show you’ll see why.

The dystopian set-up in Psycho-Pass is a very familiar one from classic SF. Just think of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which coined the phrase “Thought Police,” or the 1958 short story “Examination Day” by Henry Slesar. A more recent variant is Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report, based on a 1956 Philip K. Dick story. One key character scene in Spielberg’s film seems directly referenced at a crucial point in Psycho-Pass; see if you can spot it. Of course, there are shades of A Clockwork Orange, especially in some of the most disturbing moral questions that the show raises; and Judge Dredd, in the vision of police acting as all-powerful purveyors of snap judgements and swift executions.

Which takes us back to the ‘psycho’ part of the title. You can also see Psycho-Pass as a tribute to the thrillers of Thomas Harris, creator of Hannibal Lecter, who’s now enjoying a new TV career on NBC. Hannibal the cannibal has loomed over anime for decades. Satoshi Kon’s brilliant horror Perfect Blue, back in 1997, was packed with meta-references to Silence of the Lambs, Lecter’s best-known outing. Psycho-Pass, though, seems to draw more on the older Lecter novel Red Dragon, which highlighted the idea that you can only catch a psycho by thinking like a psycho – the dilemma of Psycho-Pass’s Enforcers. Psycho-Pass features an erudite, calm, uber-criminal who casually uses and disposes of lesser maniacs, committing atrocities himself with an absolute aesthetic detachment. Sound familiar? Additionally, both the TV Hannibal and a recent Japanese rerun of Psycho-Pass have had episodes pulled from broadcast, due to their similarities with real crimes.

From cultured cannibals to magic girls, for there’s also a link between Psycho-Pass and Puella Magica Madoka Magi, via lead writer Gen Urobuchi. The most obvious links between Madoka and Psycho-Pass are (a) their penchant for really ugly shocks, (b) one or more of the leading characters being developed through a dark yet undeniably thrilling emotional journey, and (c) the ruthless trolling of our moral sensibilities.

More than one character in Psycho-Pass has a moral perspective that most viewers will find appalling and evil, but who makes an eloquent case that it’s the only perspective that makes sense. The justifications may be social utilitarianism (the greatest happiness of the greatest number), or romantic appeals to art, self-expression and freedom. Both the show’s viewers and characters are challenged with judging fine rhetoric against foul deeds, having to listen to the ideas of characters whom we’ve been given every reason to loathe. Does it sound like a certain character in Magi Madoka? (It’ll be interesting to see if similar strands recur in the next Urobuchi anime, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, released by Manga at the end of September.)

Lastly, of course, Psycho-Pass can be judged as an anime from Production I.G, the purveyors of Ghost in the Shell. The show is, in the words of its founder Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, “a strong black coffee” series. At Hyper-Japan two years ago, Ishikawa irreverently commented that, “The young men in our studio wanted to be popular with girls, so they tended to make violent scenes to look a little bit cool.” This can be a dangerous line to take in a slasher-inflected series. Like Kon’s Perfect Blue, Psycho-Pass has many scenes of violence against women, set at different levels of realism; some can be seen as horror/slasher parodies, but others (particularly in the show’s second half) are almost unwatchably real. Yet several of the main characters are women, and treated with respect and sympathy, up to a “Wait a minute…” revelation about two of them in the closing minutes.

Psycho-Pass can certainly be slotted into Production I.G’s line of SF policiers, following Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell. However, the show’s credits suggest I.G wanted to shake things up by bringing in new hands. In particular, Psycho-Pass’s chief director was from outside anime altogether. Katsuyuki Motohiro is most famous for helming a live-action TV series, the 1990s Tokyo cop drama Bayside Shakedown. According to an Anime News Network report, Motohiro acknowledged Psycho-Pass was probably too violent for young viewers. (The anime played on the prestigious late-night ‘Noitamina’ slot on Fuji TV, home to other I.G. series like Eden of the East, Guilty Crown and Robotics;Notes.) However, Motohiro also referenced the early episodes of the crime-comedy franchise Lupin the Third. He admitted he’d watched the violent first Lupin series ‘with wonder’ as an elementary schoolboy, and wanted to traumatise today’s youth the same way!

Regarding the other creative staff on Psycho-Pass, Motohiro confirmed that I.G. brought in Gen Urobuchi – who hadn’t worked for the studio before – on the strength of Magica Madoka. The main I.G. staffer on Psycho-Pass acted as the series director under Motohiro; this was Naoyoshi Shiotani, whom we profiled on this blog when he directed Blood-C: The Last Dark. While Shiotani is no stranger to action, and has in-betweener credits on Stand Alone Complex, his main work has been on non-cyberpunk anime, including Tokyo Marble Chocolate (which he directed) and the family fantasy Oblivion Island (where he designed the cute sheep Cotton!).

The presence of Shiotani, Urobuchi and Motohiro on Psycho-Pass feels like part of a deliberate reshuffle on the studio’s part, a way to refresh the cyberpunk genre I.G is famous for. Psycho-Pass still has Ghost in the Shell-ish qualities – most obviously, an Oshii-like tendency to namedrop philosophers and artists, while the show’s glossy visual appearance and serial structure recall Stand Alone Complex. But it’s notable that Production I.G is releasing Psycho-Pass around the same time as Ghost in the Shell Arise. This is a reboot of GITS with changed characters, new voice and production credits, and a grittier, more conflict-based tone. (It comes to Britain in November.)

Both Arise and Psycho-Pass may be part of a studio revamp, an upgrade for Production I.G into a new, creatively criss-crossing universe. The second Psycho-Pass series will start on Japanese TV in October, with Urobuchi being replaced as script supervisor by Tow Ubukata. Ubukata wrote GITS Arise and the cyberpunk novel Mardock Scramble, which became one of the few recent SF anime (not by I.G), to rival Psycho-Pass for grisliness.

The last episode of Psycho-Pass’s first season does not restore a balanced status quo, and suggests big changes for the upcoming sequel. But some things will surely stay constant. For starters, there will, surely, be blood…

Psycho-Pass is out on Monday on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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